Cricket: Strength of a leader under siege

Andrew Longmore looks for parallels to the pressures faced by Australia's captain
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It has been a long time since Michael Atherton was able to look across the toss of a coin and find a captain under more pressure than himself. No wonder a touch of relief crept into his voice as he admitted to taking no pleasure from the suffering of Mark Taylor, his opposite number. Atherton has been there, done that and the experience will doubtless benefit him later in the summer when skittling the Australians does not look quite as simple as it did on that triumphant opening morning at Edgbaston.

Cricket captaincy is a delicate business at the best of times and it will seem a lot easier now that he has some runs in his pocket. The opening two days were a personal and collective nightmare for the personable Australian captain. Take that first morning. An unknown quantity of a pitch, a hazy sky, a team long on reputation (a pretty decent one, I admit) and short of practice. A dog of a toss to win. So, of course, Taylor wins it and then chooses wrong. It always happens that way when a captain is down on his luck. (Nor did it help his cause that Paul Reiffel, the most dangerous swing bowler in Australia, had originally been left behind.) Atherton probably would have batted too, but his luck is in at the moment. The run of the balls, they call it in snooker.

Much is made of the effect of captaincy on a batsman's form. The role has clearly enhanced Atherton and diminished Taylor, who yesterday at least assured himself of a place in his side for Lord's. Like a rare disease, Taylor's loss of form is easier to talk about now that there are signs of a recovery. His ditherings set the tone for the first-day debacle. But how does a poor run of form affect a captain's ability to lead? Captaincy is not a skill honed in isolation. It is not immune to the vagaries of confidence and mood. "The job becomes that much harder when, as captain, you are struggling to find your own form," Mike Brearley wrote in The Art of Captaincy, the definitive book on the subject.

Taylor was not alone in his loneliness. On the 1978-79 tour of Australia, Brearley made 37 runs from six Test innings. In the Third Test, which England lost, the captain made 0 and 1. He considered dropping himself from the fourth but was quickly talked out of it by Bob Willis, the senior pro, and Doug Insole, the manager. It helped that England were 2-1 up in the series at the time and the Australians were hobbled by the absence of their Packer defectors. The captain's lack of runs was masked by the success of the team.

Four years earlier, Mike Denness had not been so lucky. Caught in a barrage of bouncers from Lillee and Thomson, with a dressing-room which, as he says, "looked more like Emergency Ward Ten" and a team desperately low on morale, his own supply of runs dried up. Two-nil down, with one Test drawn, he dropped himself from the Fourth Test. John Edrich took over the captaincy.

"We had to get back into the series and I was out of form, so, in a sense, it wasn't a difficult decision," Denness recalled. "Mark Taylor's situation is a little different. He's built Australia into the strongest team in the world without getting any runs himself. But if the team starts losing, I'm absolutely certain they'll pull him out. Being a touring captain when you're not doing well and the team's not doing well is ten times worse than not doing well personally in a winning team.

"When you're not in form yourself, your mind tends not to be focused 100 per cent on your captaincy. You maybe delay decisions four or five overs longer than you would do otherwise; you're not as sure of yourself. When you're making runs and bubbling with confidence, you make changes instantly and expect them to work.

"Once you are no longer captain on the field, how much do you get involved? I decided to leave it all to John Edrich, so I sat by the pool on the opening morning listening to the radio. But I couldn't stand it, so I went to the ground. It was a very lonely time and one of the longest Test matches of my life."

The support of his troops will continue to be critical to Taylor just as it was to Atherton in Zimbabwe. The side has enough maturity to cope and he is not out of the woods. The Australians have traditionally picked a side first and a captain second, and carrying a non-playing captain smacked of a quaint English ideal. So far, they have lived with it, but defeat will sharpen attitudes.

Brearley recalls inviting Tony Greig to tea in his room once during his run of poor form on the '78-79 tour. Greig remarked what a coincidence it was that Denness should have had the same room on the previous tour. It was not even true. A few similar barbs, real or imagined, will start to undermine Taylor's authority, even in simple things like the team talk.

"The thing about both Atherton and Taylor is that they both play in critical positions for their sides," said John Barclay, a former captain of Sussex who watched Atherton's personal struggles at close hand as manager of England's winter tour. "It's not as if they can drop down the order to regain their form. Michael's setbacks in the winter were enormously strengthening. He learned what it's like to give everything every day and still have your off-stump knocked out. His resolve was incredible."

Mark Taylor might take heart from that. Or even from the record of one of his predecessors, the Maharaja of Porbander, who captained the All- India touring side to England as a batsman in 1932. In six innings, he made six runs, one for each of his Rolls-Royces.